Project Highrise – A Vertical Empire

Project Highrise, by Somasim Games is an unabashed homage to Yutaka “Yoot” Saito’s 1994 hit SimTower. The two games share the same premise and aesthetic, with Project Highrise’s art style firmly planted in the early 1990s. It’s a game where you’re tasked with constructing and managing a building, leasing out space to offices, shops, hotels, restaurants and apartments, with the revenue going into services for the tenants and further construction. It’s a sandbox management sim and I think it’s a really good one, but there’s a lot to talk about and the comparisons to SimTower have to be made.

Probably the biggest difference between SimTower and Project Highrise is the difficulty curve. SimTower was first and foremost a game. You could easily begin building and a tower and have a healthy little building without much hassle. As your tower progressed through the star rating system, the game would get progressively more difficult. Tenants became more picky and the game threw random events, such as terrorist attacks, at you. Project Highrise is the other way round. The opening hour of a new scenario or sandbox game of Project Highrise is brutally hard. You have to plan ahead and more likely than not will be hitting up the bank for a loan to get the capital you need to fit out your building in the hope of leasing enough space to cover the costs of servicing the building. Once you get over this tipping point though, and I could probably isolate the moment you build a larger maintenance office as the turning point, the game just goes into cruise control. At this point you can idle it in the background and browse old Pietriot articles while your building accumulates wealth for you to splash out on upgrades and expansions. The random events the game throws as you are as dramatic as a slight downturn in the local economy, or the price of steel being temporarily reduced. I think the Project Highrise approach, while less gamey, is more realistic and is a testament to how powerful capitalists and property developers are in society, where life gets easier the more capital you have, while us living under the thumbs of the slumlords suffer.

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Mechanically the game is pretty straightforward, you’re building a tower. You first build out floors and connect them with elevators and utilities like gas, power, and cable TV. You then allocate spaces for offices, apartments, shops, food outlets etc. These all have varying competing demands for additional building services, for example offices require print room services while hotel rooms need room keeping. As you progress you’ll unlock larger, more lucrative tenants to inhabit the rooms you build who will in turn demand a larger range of more luxurious services, like pet grooming for high end apartments or art curation for boutique shops. Scaling up services isn’t difficult and the interface will highlight services that are in demand or not being adequately met, the downside – tenants moving out – isn’t a significant financial penalty for falling behind either. Compared to SimTower there is a far less emphasis on elevator traffic management and location placement. While a small handful of tenants, like a recording studio company, in Project Highrise require sound insulation, SimTower residents were notoriously picky and would essentially refuse to live on the same floor as any other type of usage. Project Highrise also places much more emphasis on the provision of services to building tenants, of which there are dozens, whereas SimTower pretty much kept it to housekeeping, parking and security.

I wanted to work it into the previous paragraph but I’m separating it because it’s my biggest gripe, maybe my only gripe, with the game and needs attention. The interface is a mess. It desperately needs keyboard shortcuts because getting to placing anything usually required entering multiple submenus. But even that wouldn’t help my as I struggle to remember where certain things can be found, especially if it’s a service like garbage, which services both food outlets and apartments yet is found down the bottom of two different menu trees. I understand that this genre is dependent on intensive menus and it might be hard to simplify it without straight up cutting content but I’m sure I good UX designer could make big improvements.

Screenshot of Project Highrise's menus.
Just look at all this shit!

Various scenarios add some variety and different challenges to the game, as well injecting a small amount of narrative and context to your building. These vary from refurbishing a gentrifying building in London, providing student housing in Tokyo or creating restricted areas that you must build around. Fundamentally though, they’re just about hitting a different tipping point to when the money begins to gush in. That’s probably not enough for normal people, but armchair architecture enthusiasts like me create stories in our head and characters to inhabit our buildings while we build.

I have to talk about the aesthetic of Project Highrise which is pure SimTower. It’s like they took the pixels of SimTower and vectorised them so we can zoom in really close on our high dpi OLED curved displays of 2018. Like SimTower different types of rooms are colour coded so you can get an idea of what is filling your building at a distance. The colour variations are more subtle though and there’s an emphasis on pastels which compliments the smooth gradients of art when zoomed in. As I mentioned earlier, the game places itself in the late 1980s, early 1990s by filling rooms with decor and technology of the period. The truly pedantic may get upset at the way some of the DLC packs include more contemporary rooms and modifications to your buildings, like for instance rooftop cafe’s complete with vegetation, but these are still depicted in a consistent, coherent pastel visual style to match the rest of the aesthetic. Both games feature sounds which could be described as “ambient”. To be honest I just turn the music off and play my own tunes.

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Currently there’s five DLC packs for Project Highrise. Las Vegas is probably the most important one because it adds hotels and entertainment options, allowing you to add some nightlife to your building. The Miami, Tokyo, London and Berlin DLC really only add some visual variety to the game, and for many people scouring the free content on the Steam Workshop will be enough. But they’re only priced at a few dollars each, so these aren’t purchases I regret or anything.

Project Highrise is available for PC and Mac on all the usual digital storefronts. I reviewed it in Macintosh and you can see my play achievements here. Next week a special Architect’s Edition, including all the DLC releases on Switch, PS4 and Xbone in the important regions. North America will be delayed until November due to them losing the trade war.

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